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Desert slum gets a 'new sheriff'

Court appointee is upgrading Duroville and preparing a report on whether it should stay open.

March 09, 2008|David Kelly | Times Staff Writer

THERMAL, CALIF. — Mark Adams smiled serenely as an industrial-sized Roto-Rooter truck noisily sucked thousands of gallons of raw sewage from a stinking pond.

"In some ways I have been training for this for the last 10 years," he said, as the air around him began smelling more and more like a giant outhouse. "Now all of the pieces have fallen into place."

Wearing a blue polo shirt, slacks and sunglasses, the neatly pressed Santa Monica lawyer seemed at ease, at home even, in the crumbling, sunbaked slum known as Duroville.

U.S. District Judge Stephen Larson last month appointed Adams, 57, temporary receiver of the infamous trailer park. That makes him, as Adams put it, "the new sheriff in town" and he hasn't worn his authority lightly.

He immediately ordered drug tests for all park employees, firing three who refused to take part. Signs went up telling tenants to keep their dogs in the yard or lose them to the pound. All street parking has been banned under threat of towing. Four of eight backed up sewage ponds are being drained.

When the owners of a small market and a nearby clothing shop balked at hiring a security guard to keep drunks from loitering, Adams reminded them that he could replace their businesses with other ones or simply have them evicted.

They grudgingly agreed to split the cost for a guard.

"Maybe I can hire my son-in-law to do it," said Jose Carello, owner of Silvia's Market. "I wonder how much you have to pay them an hour? Do they need a uniform?"

A full-time security force, complete with uniforms and cars resembling police vehicles, has been hired to patrol the park.

Electricians inspected the 276 trailers and found 30 in need of immediate repair. In 10 trailers, the toilets had rotted through the floors and were sitting on the ground.

"I have cleaned up slums all over California but have taken on nothing as daunting as Duroville," Adams said, as he strode the dusty roads between densely packed trailers. "The magnitude of this is amazing."

His task is to do emergency repairs and take control of park finances. After 60 days he will make a recommendation to Larson on whether Duroville should stay open or be closed.

"There are a lot of imminent dangers to people who live here," he said. "In the short term we can take steps to make it habitable. Whether we could do that permanently, that is up to Judge Larson."

The U.S. attorney's office has asked the judge to shut down the 40-acre park, which sits on the Torres Martinez reservation, saying it poses unacceptable safety risks to the 6,000 farm workers living there. Past inspections have turned up water quality violations, sewage beneath trailers, faulty electrical systems and trailers packed too closely together.

Larson has so far refused to close it for fear of making thousands homeless. He appointed Pierre-Richard Prosper, a former U.S. ambassador who investigated war crimes in Rwanda, and Jack Shine, president and chief executive of First Financial Group, as special masters to investigate conditions at the park. He made Adams provisional receiver. All three men will be paid a fee that the judge will later determine.

Adams, a Georgetown University graduate, has been appointed receiver by 15 judges in five counties for 21 properties over the last decade. At one job in Norco, he and his crew hauled off 1,100 tons of junk.

For Duroville, he has secured a $150,000 line of credit from a consortium of banks to finance repairs, with park owner Harvey Duro responsible for repaying whatever Adams spends. Adams said Duro, a member of the Torres Martinez tribe, has adopted a low profile but is cooperating.

In recent days, the park has been bustling. Trucks have drained sewage ponds and collected piles of garbage. Fencing has gone up for dog kennels. The new security force is taking shape.

Electrician Joe Ayon visited each mobile home to see what needed fixing.

Inside a trailer owned by Angela Lemos, he found only one outlet working, with numerous extension cords feeding off it. The cords were running under her carpet and up the walls.

"This represents a serious fire hazard," Ayon said.

Lemos, 42, cradled her 4-month-old, Jimmy, as the men combed her trailer for more hazards. Three cages of doves were stacked up outside. She said she keeps them for their gentle cooing.

"I'm happy that they are cleaning the park," Lemos said. "But I am worried about the electrical problems."

Dangling wires hung in the back of 31-year-old Alisia Ortiz's closet, her clothes pressed right up against them.

She was more concerned about the park closing.

"A lot of people are worried," she said. "In my mind they won't shut it down because there are so many people here. I hope not."

Some residents said they had not worked in three months or were working fewer hours now. A frost dramatically reduced crop yields, so there is less to harvest. Park manager Jack Gradias said more and more rent checks were being paid by the local priest.

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